Mark Greene considers an extraordinary example of compassion
You can tell a lot about a culture by the people it admires, by its heroes and heroines: the cleancut exemplars of yesteryear – Bobby Moore and Mother Teresa? Or today’s more ambivalent figures – Wayne Rooney and Madonna? In any event, if you can tell a culture by its heroes, the same might be true of individuals. Who do we admire? And why? What do our heroes inspire in us? And what is it in them that we aspire to? If, of course, we have any heroes at all. Well, I’m not at all sure what my heroes say about me, particularly the one I want to introduce you to. Still, this person reminds me of something essential, something easily overlooked in the whole business of engaging and ministering and missioning in today’s culture. Not that my hero is contemporary, male or even alive. In fact, she’s a girl, probably not even a teenager, and she’s been dead around 2,700 years. Her story is told in just a few verses in 2 Kings 5 but in it there is a voice that is still relevant to authentic cultural engagement today.So what of this girl? She is an Israelite, captured by Aram’s armies, and enslaved in the enemy general’s household. She’s an alien in a pagan land, emotionally and spiritually isolated, wrenched from family and friends and the fellowship of those who believe in the one true God. She’s in the wrong job, in the wrong country and working for the wrong boss. What Christian in Britain is in so bleak a set of circumstances? Her mistress’ husband, Naaman, is sick with leprosy. The girl’s response is not to view the general’s suffering as a punishment from God for his idolatry. Her response is compassion. She cries to her mistress: “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” Just as Jesus calls on the people of Israel to love their enemies, including the Roman occupation force, so this girl is able to set aside national enmity for personal compassion. She wants the best for her boss. I wonder if we do. Or if we even pray for them. But what can this young girl do for Naaman? She’s a slave. She has no power, no connections, no family. She has only one asset: her belief in a God who can heal. Still, why should she continue to believe in his potency? After all, the God of Israel hadn’t prevented her enslavement. Wasn’t Rimmon, the god of Aram, more powerful? Wasn’t she on his territory? And wasn’t there a strong belief in the Ancient Near East in the idea of particular gods having particular power over particular territories? I wonder if sometimes we are any different. We may pray for miracles in the sanctuary but are perhaps less quick to think that God can act in the office. The girl, however, refuses to allow circumstances to determine what she believes is possible. She not only believes her God can heal, she believes that, in this instance, he actually will. Still, what a risk she is taking. Suppose your boss were ill, would you walk into his/her office and say, “There’s a man in Essex who can save your life?” Not only do you risk ridicule, you risk the anger of your boss if they aren’t healed. Similarly, how might Naaman have responded if he had not been healed? What revenge might ensue? “You sent me 150 miles on a wildgoose chase to see a man who said nothing and did nothing. Bah, I should have known it was just a spiteful little trick, an act of embittered revenge…” Do we have this girl’s boldness? Interestingly, in Acts 4, the disciples pray not just for the boldness to witness but also ask God to stretch out his hand to do mighty works. The disciples were simply following Jesus’ pattern. Doubtless they knew the limitations of miracles. Miracles, after all, don’t necessarily lead people to faith but they certainly get you an audience for the message. I wonder whether we too pray for both – not only that God would give us the boldness to speak but also that God would intervene decisively in healing, or in resolving some apparently intransigent problem.
Still, it’s one thing to speak out; it’s another to be heard. Why does Naaman’s Aramean wife take any notice of her Israelite slave? If the prophets of Rimmon cannot cure her husband why should a prophet of Israel be able to?
Perhaps Naaman’s wife was impressed by the slave girl’s work, as the Egyptian jailer was by Joseph’s. Perhaps she was just desperate. Desperate people will, after all, try anything – crystals, wheat germ and yoghurt, tai chi. Similarly, atheists in trouble are often curiously willing to accept the offer of prayer.
Nevertheless, there were considerable obstacles to overcome. Elisha was living in enemy territory. And besides what incentive was there for a prophet of Israel to heal an enemy general?
The slave girl, however, unintimidated, or perhaps oblivious, to the geo-political complexities, simply tells her mistress about Elisha. A small thing. She does what she can and leaves the rest to God. Does he ask any more of us?
There were, however, a lot of other people involved in Naaman’s healing and conversion: his wife who had to believe in the possibility and encourage her husband to go; the King of Aram who must resolve the geo-political issues to make it possible for Naaman to enter Israel; Elisha; the King of Israel who must accede to Elisha’s request; Elisha’s servant and Naaman’s servants who must help their master overcome his pride. The servant girl was simply one link in a chain that lead to Naaman’s healing and conversion. She did what she could but she was not working alone. God was at work through others.
Sometimes we ask ourselves, “What difference have I made to anyone?” The reality is that coming to Christ is a process and just as in our journey towards Christ there were perhaps many people involved so it is for those we live and work with. One sows, one hoes but only God grows. We do what we can. And leave the rest to God.
Interestingly, the impact of the young girl’s compassion is not only on Naaman but also on two kings, their courts, and the whole army of Aram. As the subsequent chapters show, God is trying to teach the Kings of Israel and Aram who is truly Lord. It’s a lesson the King of Aram fails to learn, resulting in a great deal of wasted effort and wasted military hardware (see 2 Kings 6 –7). The servant girl may be a pawn in the game but her faith is a catalyst designed to affect two kings and their nations.
Who are we to say what is significant, what is ‘strategic’? Who are we to say what will affect society in the medium or long-term? We may well be surprised. Take for example Les Isaac’s street pastors, profiled in the October issue of Christianity. Ordinary men and women, some of them in their late 60s, out late at night in the most murderous areas of our inner cities, bringing down the crime rate across Britain. Last Saturday, I talked to Les and he told what one person told Michael Howard about the street pastors: “When we see them walking the streets, we see God walking the streets.”
Love. In our culture it’s often a sentimental notion but, in its robust sense of wanting to do the best for our neighbour, it is the key to mission – always has been, always will.
Similarly, last Friday, I was talking to a 22-year-old woman who’d been told by a youth worker that she really needed to watch Little Britain if she wanted to relate to young people. I understand where such statements come from and I have a smidgen of sympathy for them. After all, I work for the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity and part of our remit is to help people understand what’s going on in contemporary culture so that we can more effectively understand and reach people. Nevertheless, the most important thing to do with young people or middle-aged people or old people, is to bother to listen to them, to care for them. In most interactions with people, an ear that listens and a heart that cares is far more potent than any number of culturally astute references.
Here then is the nub. What is it that impelled God to send his son to die for us if not love, if not our best interests? What’s in our neighbour’s best interests? What would bless them? There are of course all kinds of ways to bless the people we work and study and play and live with, some of them so apparently trivial we might not even notice we’re doing them. At root, ministry is simply love in action.
Last week, I met a woman called Jenny Cumber. She works part-time for Boots. Recently one of the Saturday girls who was leaving to train as a physiotherapist told her this, “If it hadn’t been for you taking me aside when I failed my ‘A’ levels, I wouldn’t be going on to do what I’m going to do.” Jenny told me “It wasn’t much, I just listened to her.” But it made all the difference in that young girl’s world.
That’s the power of kindness, of looking to other people’s interests. And that’s why the young girl is one of my heroes. It’s also why I am so grateful to the person who’s been editing my articles for the last seven years – Andy Peck. This is his last issue of Christianity and over the years he’s not only been a constant encourager, and an astute surgeon, but has kept a keen eye for my interests, recognising on several occasions that what I was trying to say might not actually be what the reader would understand. He has, as a result, kept me from several heresy trials.
Kindness, and looking to other people’s interests. The girl in 2 Kings 5 had no status at all. She was a minor in a culture that only took notice of adults, a female in a culture that deferred to males, a slave in a culture where slaves had no rights, and a foreigner in a culture where foreigners tended to be despised. She had nothing going for her – except faith in the living God and love for her enemy. Most of us have a lot more going for us – education, status, money, family, friends, fellowship, freedom but if we have not love...
If only we might, I might, see those around me with the eyes of Christ and the heart of Christ and do what we can – leaving the rest to Him.
Mark Greene is the executive director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.